Most people whom I ask “What is a unicorn?” respond that it is a mythical horse with a single horn on its head. Yet, throughout the weird history of the unicorn, it has been made up of various parts of a horse but also of a goat, an antelope, even a lion, and the distinctive horn is like the horn of a narwhale.
If you look at the two most famous portrayals of the unicorn, both on tapestries, the unicorn seems more like a goat than a horse. You can see pictures of the two series of tapestries online: “The Hunt of the Unicorn” (here) and “The Lady and the Unicorn” (here). If your browse through some of the millions of results that a Google image search for “unicorn” returns (here) you will find unicorns of all shapes, colors, and apparently, pedigrees.
From the early days of unicorn lore, three animals have been associated with the unicorn: the narwhale, the rhinoceros, and the orynx (a kind of antelope). In a previous article (here), I referred to the association of the unicorn with a narwhale in a quote from Herman Melville and to Marco Polo’s description of a rhinoceros, which he referred to as a unicorn. The oryx, an antelope with two horns, was apparently mistaken for a one-horned animal when it was seen and sometimes portrayed in silhouette.
There are fossils of a number of dinosaurs called ceratopsians, which literally means they have horned-faces, and I have written about Tsintaosaurus, a dinosaur found in China that has been dubbed the “Chinese unicorn” (here).
In the 1980s, some naturalists grafted horns onto the foreheads of goats, producing a living unicorn that was displayed by Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus (more).
So, what is a unicorn? What was the first unicorn?
The word unicorn comes from the Latin, unicornis, literally meaning one-horn, related to the Greek, μονόκερως (monokeros). So, any animal, goat, horse, rhinoceros, dinosaur, or whale that has only one horn can be called a unicorn. As Herman Melville wrote (here), it displays “unicornism” – the property of having one horn.
The earliest more or less “scientific” description of a unicorn, a one-horned animal, is that of Ctesias, a Greek historian from the fifth century, BC (more). All we know of his lost books about Persia and India is what was quoted by other writers. His description of the unicorn, which he calls a wild ass, is so intriguing – similar to later aspects of the legend, different in some ways – that I am quoting much of it (below) as it is preserved in Ancient India as Described by Ktesias the Knidian, edited and translated by J. W. McCrindle.
The 1881 volume, on the shelves of the libraries of Harvard University, has been scanned by Google and posted on Archive.org, so that I can sit in my home in Lakeland, Florida, with the inevitable parrot in my lap, some 1,400 miles away (according to Google Maps), and read a copy that I downloaded here… and that to me is more amazing than a unicorn.
You can find an index to all my stories of hunting unicorns, “The Joys of Chasing Unicorns,” here.
The earliest account of the unicorn according to Ctesias
Among the Indians, there are wild asses as large as horses, some being even larger. Their head is dark red, their eyes blue, and the rest of their body white. They have a horn on their forehead, a cubit in length [the filings of this horn, if given in a potion, are an antidote to poisonous drugs]. This horn for about two palm-breadths upwards from the base is of the purest white, where it tapers to a sharp point of a flaming crimson, and, in the middle, is black. These horns are made into drinking cups, and such as drink from them are attacked neither by convulsions nor by the sacred disease (epilepsy). Nay, they are not even affected by poisons, if either before or after swallowing them they drink from these cups wine, water, or anything else.
It is exceedingly fleet and strong, and no creature that pursues it, not even the horse, can overtake it. On first starting, it scampers off somewhat leisurely, but the longer it runs, it gallops faster and faster till the pace becomes most furious. These animals therefore can only be caught at one particular time – that is when they lead out their little foals to the pastures in which they roam. They are then hemmed in on all sides by a vast number of hunters mounted on horseback, and being unwilling to escape while leaving their young to perish, stand their ground and fight, and by butting with their horns and kicking and biting kill many horses and men. But they are in the end taken, pierced to death with arrows and spears, for to take them alive is in no way possible. Their flesh being bitter is unfit for food, and they are hunted merely for the sake of their horns.